New Scientist 14Mar2020

(C. Jardin) #1
14 March 2020 | New Scientist | 5

FOR weeks now, the news has been
dominated by the coronavirus. This is
hardly surprising: it is an unprecedented
global story with an unknown ending,
featuring a new virus we don’t yet fully
understand. The planet’s most populous
nation shut down an entire province
to try to contain it, and now there is an
exponential uptick in cases worldwide.
It is also no wonder everyone is
talking about the virus, given many
people are worrying about the risks
to themselves or their loved ones. No
wonder, too, that inaccurate articles and
even conspiracy theories are flourishing,
and that warnings to be ready for
self-isolation have led to panic-buying.
Inevitably perhaps – with the numbers
of diagnosed cases currently still low
in many countries – a backlash is under
way. There is a view that the fatality rate

will turn out to be tiny, that the new
virus is no more noteworthy than
flu and that the economic harm of
containment measures doesn’t justify
the lives they could save. The media,
meanwhile, is being accused of stoking
panic in its reporting.

But as Michael Leavitt, a former
US secretary of health, put it last
week: “Anything said in advance of
a pandemic seems alarmist. After a
pandemic begins, anything one has
said or done is inadequate.”
The best information now available
suggests a fatality rate of around

0.7 per cent (see page 8), which means
the covid-19 virus has the potential to
kill a large number of people worldwide.
The virus differs from flu in that there is
no widespread immunity to it – the only
people likely to have any are those who
have already had it. What’s more, unlike
flu, we have no vaccines to give to those
who are most at risk.
All this means that concern over the
virus and considered action to delay its
spread – such as meticulous hygiene and
not taking your runny nose to work if you
can avoid doing so – are fully justified.
While much of China has seen a death
rate of 0.7 per cent, the fatality rate was
far higher in Wuhan, the city with the
first cases, where hospitals were hit with
many cases at once. Far from constituting
“panic”, precautionary action to tackle
the virus is only sensible. ❚

This really is nothing like flu

Those downplaying the coronavirus ignore our lack of immunity and vaccines

The leader

“ The only people likely to
have any immunity to the
new coronavirus are those
who have already had it”

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